“Hey, he pulled it off,” said Lou Arcangeli, a retired Atlanta deputy chief who partnered with Biello back in the 1970s as a narcotics cop. “But the biggest surprise wasn’t that a former police officer in a wheelchair won. It was that a Philadelphia Italian Yankee won an open election in Cherokee County.”
Biello served 14 years as a county commissioner in fast-growing Cherokee. He also was a longtime member of both the county’s recreation authority and the state’s boxing commission.
He never shied away from a fight, whether it was using his motorized wheelchair to pin a fellow commissioner against the wall of an elevator during an argument, or going up against the city of Atlanta 10 years ago to get some benefits promised to him and other disabled cops.
Biello, whose health had deteriorated in recent years, died Sunday at home.
J.J. Biello, right, in Atlanta blues with longtime friend and partner Larry Sproat. (Family handout)
The GBI did an autopsy to see if his 32-year-old wounds led to his death. The shooter, David Timothy Moore, who was 17, was convicted of aggravated assault and armed robbery and sentenced to 60 years. He is still in prison.
Fulton County DA Paul Howard said Moore, now turning 50, may face new charges if Biello’s death appears to have been caused by the bullet Moore fired into Biello’s neck as he lay wounded on the restaurant floor. Howard said some case law allows such a prosecution.
As a cop, Biello seemed to be everywhere. The AJC quoted him often in the 1980s as he rounded up all sorts of ne’er-do-wells, including a robber dressed like a priest and another dressed like a cop. He was great newspaper copy.
He went full Serpico as a narc, growing a hippy beard and long, curly hair so he could weasel his way into drug rings.
J.J. Biello as an Atlanta police narcotics officer playing his best Serpico, probably late 1970s. (Family handout)
When he was wounded, Biello, like most cops, was working a second job because he was making $30,000 and raising two sons — Alex and Ross. Biello and another cop waited outside Provino’s Italian Restaurant when he saw two men drive up and one go inside, arousing Biello’s suspicions.
When Biello entered, he saw an armed robbery occurring. Moore shot the detective twice, Biello hit him once. Then Moore tried to finish him off, forever crippling the sturdy and athletic cop.
“It’s incredible he survived,” said Rene Diaz, the CEO mentioned earlier. “He didn’t want to let go. He was thinking of his kids. He didn’t want to let go.”
The shootings of Biello and Richard Williams, another cop paralyzed that year, brought forward a wave of public sympathy. A fundraiser at Piedmont Park brought 35,000 people to eat 10 tons of barbecue and raise $100,000-plus for each man.
I covered Cherokee County in 1990 and watched Biello’s political victory. It was a remarkable, feel-good, comeback story, but it wasn’t the biggest obstacle he had to overcome. Swallowing his pride to be able to accept his new reality was the first difficult step to rejoining life.
“It was embarrassing to ask people to do things for him,” said Arcangeli. “But he got over that.”
At the time of his 1990 election, Biello’s younger brother, Tony, also an Atlanta detective, said, “J.J. really needed this.”
J.J. Biello, former Atlanta cop who was paralyzed from the shoulders down when he was shot in 1987, as he looked in November 1995, during his fifth year as a well-respected Cherokee County commissioner. (Joe McTyre/AJC staff)
Biello, who spoke with a raspy voice because of the throat wound, came to office when Cherokee County’s population had swollen to 90,000, 70 percent more than a decade earlier. (It is now 250,000.) He was a staunch proponent of “slow growth,” because the county’s schools, roads and other infrastructure were playing catch-up. He battled developers and other commissioners, including the one he reportedly tried to squish in the elevator with his wheelchair.
He battled with the county’s sheriff, and in 1992 helped elect another one, Roger Garrison, who retired just a couple of years ago.
“J.J. was a political mentor of mine,” recalled Garrison. “His first lesson was to count to three.”
Was that to let your temper subside?
“No, that’s what you need to be successful,” Garrison said. “You’ve got to get three of five votes (on the commission) to get things done.”
Woodstock Sheriff Roger Garrison in March 5, 2009, displaying a gun recovered from Woodstock High School after authorities received a tip. BOB ANDRES / firstname.lastname@example.org
“He was a tireless worker for our campaign,” Garrison said. “He was so resilient. Everything was so painful. It took him an hour to get out of his house. He was a living Superman to endure a schedule like that.”
Diaz remembers him as bigger than life. “He was old school, like the Godfather, Don Corleone,” said Diaz, who asked Biello to be his son’s godfather. “Your word is your word. Protect your family.”
Diaz is right, Biello would be a good movie character.
“I’m privileged to have had him as a father,” said his son Ross. “Whatever he did as a cop, he did more as a dad.”